CreatureCast – Sex in Spoonworms

posted by Casey Dunn / on September 21st, 2013 / in Annelids, lifecycles

Alysse Austin, a student in Casey Dunn’s Invertebrate Zoology course at Brown University, describes sexual dimorphism in green spoonworm.

This is the first episode of CreatureCast to be distributed in partnership with the New York Times.

Special thanks to Rachel Kaplan and the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. Music is “Sneeuwland” by Oskar Schuster.

Bone Boring Worms

posted by Perrin Ireland / on May 25th, 2010 / in Annelids, Development, lifecycles

In 2002, while out roaming the depths in Monterey Bay Canyon with the remote operated vehicle (ROV) Tiburon, MBARI scientist Robert Vrijenhoek stumbled upon a whale carcass on the ocean floor, and noticed that it had its own little ecosystem. When a whale has died, its skeleton drops to the ocean floor, creating a habitat island in the depths. Creatures apparently gather from far and wide to use the whale carcass’ nutrients and living space.

Scientists have categorized four stages of whale carcass ecosystems- first the “mobile scavengers” show up, such as sharks, crabs, hagfish. These guys pick away at what luscious meat remains. Snails, slugs and worms show up next to make use of the nutrient-rich poo (in science speak, “organically rich sediment”) the larger scavengers have left behind. The third stage is comprised of animals that rely on hydrogen sulfide gas emitted from the decomposing bones and organic sediments. These animals, like vesicomyid clams, depend on symbiotic bacteria that live inside their cells to make energy for the animal from sulfur based compounds. Free-living bacteria that also live off sulfur form in mats that coat the bones. The final stage of a whale bone’s community succession is the reef stage, when most of the nutrients the whale bone can provide have been exhausted, and the minerals remaining in the bone provide a surface for suspension and filter feeders, who rely on the ocean currents to bring food their way.

When Vrijenhoek and his colleagues were at depth checking out whalebone world, they noticed little red worms that they were unable to identify all over the remaining whalebones. They collected a sample and send the worms to worm expert Greg Rouse, who informed them they had discovered a new species. Related to tube worms that live at the mouths of hydrothermal vents, Osedax grow at their longest to be about the length of your index finger, and as thick as a pencil. Penetrating deep into the marrow cavities of the whalebones are their elaborate root systems. These roots house bacteria that help the worms extract and digest nutrients from the bone, as they lack stomachs and digestive tubes.

Perhaps most bizarre and enticing about the Osedax worm is that all the worms the scientists first discovered appeared to be reproductive females, with no males in sight. Eventually they found the tiny males living in tubes along the female’s trunk. An Osedax female essentially has a harem of up to fourteen males that do nothing else but provide sperm for the eggs she produces. Osedax males feed for their entire lives on yolk provisioned by the egg from which they hatched, like forty year olds living at home on Mom’s meatloaf. The males look strikingly similar to Osedax larva, suggesting that they are larva in arrested development that began producing sperm.

Most of the eggs exiting the female are already fertilized. But how do those little guys lying along her trunk scoot their sperm up to catch the eggs as they’re on the way out? And how, then, do larvae being flung into the dark beyond know whether to become male or female? It could be possible that sex determination depends on whether a larva lands on bone or lands on another female. Perhaps similar to hydrothermal vent worms, a juvenile becomes a male if it lands on a female and she releases a chemical, enticing it into her little harem, to do her reproductive bidding.

CreatureCast – Marine Worms

posted by Sophia Tintori / on December 16th, 2009 / in Annelids, Podcast (Student Contribution)

This installment of CreatureCast is the second of several contributions that were done as final projects by undergraduate students in Casey Dunn’s Invertebrate Zoology class at Brown University. In episode 4, sophomore Noah Rose delves into the bottom half of the circle of life, where dead things decompose and elements that can then be incorporated into other living organisms are liberated. Noah discusses how the many-legged worms we tend to think of as fish bait impact this process.

This podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. The video and sound work was done by Noah Rose, with music by Noah Rose.

Glowing worms in the deep sea

posted by Orla O'Brien / on September 14th, 2009 / in Annelids


Bioluminescence can be used for myriad purposes in different species—this recently discovered species of annelid, Swima bombaviridis, probably uses bioluminescence to escape from predators. It was described by Karen Osborn and friends. The worm carries eight fluid-filled packets near its head that it can release at will. When these packets are released, they bioluminesce a bright green for several seconds. Since the worms live in the deep sea, these flashes are a contrast to the dark environment and may distract predators—instead of getting a bite of worm, they are left with nothing. The mechanism for releasing these bioluminescent bombs is unclear—in addition to the lack of light at the depths the worms live at they are without eyes—but the release is probably related to a tactile sensory system, as they release their bioluminescent organs when touched.

Photo by Casey Dunn. The head is to the left, and the green bioluminescent packets can be seen attached to the body just behind it.

Glowing worms in Bermuda

posted by Stefan Siebert / on August 19th, 2009 / in Annelids

Odontosyllis phosphorea

Reproduction is a complex business, and often requires that the partners meet. Polychaete worms belonging to Odontosyllis have developed a highly elaborate mating behavior that includes bioluminescent signals. During a recent stopover on the Bermuda islands, on a sailing trip across the Atlantic, I was able to witness the fascinating mating dance of Odontosyllis enopla. The species normally spends its life in shallow water on rocky or sandy bottoms. Once a month, 2-5 days after full moon and around 55 min after the astronomical sunset, the animals start ascending to the sea surface. Here the circling female tries to attract a male by emitting green light and the repeated release of green glowing clouds. The male signals its presence via bioluminescent flashes. In the course of this dance – which may last from 10 to 30 min – the animals spawn and the sea turns black again as they go dark. Remarkably, the worms undergo severe modifications of their body and behavior when switching from the bottom dwelling mode of living to the free floating form. In the case of the males this means, amongst other things, a considerable enlargement of the eyes. After spawning the worms return to the bottom and can potentially swarm again. The photo above, by Greg Rouse, is of the Californian species Odontosyllis phosphorea in its benthic phase. Data from Dimitri Deheyna and Michael Latz suggest the involvement of a photoprotein in the bioluminiscence of this species.